Invasive seaweed alters marine habitat

As an invasive seaweed replaces native kelp off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire, researchers are trying to learn its effects on the ecosystem

APPLEDORE ISLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- A research team from the University of New Hampshire is studying the alarming spread of invasive seaweed in the Gulf of Maine.

In new research published in the Journal of Ecology, the scientists say up to 90 percent of the ocean floor in areas of coastal New Hampshire and southern Maine are covered by a red, shrub-like seaweed.

Using historical photos of the same area off of Appledore Island in the Isle of Shoals, the researchers know the same areas were once covered by towering kelp, the rainforests of the ocean. "Declining kelp beds is concerning, absolutely, says Jennifer Dijkstra, a professor at UNH. 

Dijkstra is working with research technician Kristen Mello and PhD student Brandon O’Brien to document the invasive species, through diving and mapping, that is taking over the ocean floor. Their new research aims to document what is happening and how the change from kelp to this invasive seaweed will impact the ecosystem of the ocean.

The invasive species is a short, stubby, red seaweed that isn’t supposed to be in the Gulf of Maine. It’s an invader that found its way here, likely through ballast water or hitching a ride on a ship.

Unlike kelp, which has long, thick blades that create a safe nursery for juvenile fish like pollock, flounder and  lobster, the invasive seaweed offers much less protection from predators.

“It’s very important for us to understand how going from a forest to a shrub land will affect these really important habitats," said Dijkstra.

They have learned that the invasive seaweed actually supports more meso invertebrates, the insects of the ocean, than kelp does. Those creatures are an important part of the food chain, and their numbers could impact larger species.

"When you're swimming at the beach and algae brushes up against your leg, it's a nasty thing, smells disgusting, but it's a really important thing for ocean eco system," says researcher Kristen Mello.

The scientists say a warming ocean and fishing practices may be responsible for the proliferation of the invasive species.

© 2017 WCSH-TV


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